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The Sorrows of Werter

By Johann Wolfgang Goethe


August 12.

ALBERT is certainly one of the best men in the world. I had a very singular conversation with him yesterday, which I must relate to you. I went to take leave of him; for I took it into my head to spend a few days in the mountains, from whence I now write to you. As I was walking up and down his room, I observed his pistols. I asked him to lend them to me for my journey. "They are at your service," said he, "if you will take the trouble of loading them, for {76} I only keep them here for form." I took one up, and he continued: "Ever since I had like to have suffered for my precautions, I have left off keeping loaded firearms." I desired him to tell me what the accident was. "I was with a friend in the country," he said; "my pistols were not loaded, and I slept with perfect tranquillity: but one rainy afternoon, when I was sitting and doing nothing, it came into my head, I don't know how, that the house might be attacked, and that these pistols might be of use, and that we might -- in short, you know how one goes on when one has nothing better to do. I gave my pistols to my servant to clean and load. He was playing with the maid and trying to frighten her; and God knows how, the pistol went off: the rammer was in; it went off against the girl's hand, and tore off her thumb. You may imagine the lamentations and noise we had; and moreover a surgeon's bill to pay. Since the accident my pistols have re- {77} mained as you see them. What, indeed, is the use of precaution? we cannot, my dear friend, foresee the dangers which threaten us." Do you know, I like every thing in this man, except his indeeds; and every rule has an exception. But he is so correct in his behaviour, of such perfect veracity, that if he thinks he has risked any thing, or been too general, or not strictly true, he never ceases to moderate, and qualify, and extenuate, till at length it appears that he has said nothing at all. Albert now, according to custom, was immersed in his text: I ceased to hear him, and was lost in reveries. In these reveries, I put the mouth of the pistol to my forehead. "What do you mean," cried Albert, turning back the pistol. "It is not charged," said I. "And if it is not," he answered with impatience, "what do you mean by it? I cannot comprehend how a man should be so mad as to blow out his brains; and the bare idea of it shocks me." "What right has any man," said I, {78} "in speaking of an action, immediately to pronounce that it is mad, or wise, or good, or bad? What is meant by all this? Have you carefully examined the interior motives for the action? Have you fairly unfolded all the reasons which gave rise to it, and which made it necessary? If you did all this, you would not be so quick with your decision." "However," said Albert, "you will allow that some actions are criminal, whatever were the motives for committing them." -- I granted it, and shrugged up my shoulders.

"But still, my good friend," I said, "there are more exceptions to make. Theft is a crime: but the man who is driven to it by extreme poverty, with no design but to save himself and his family from perishing for want, must he too be punished? and is he not rather an object of our compassion? Who shall throw the first stone at a husband that, in the first heat of just resentment, sacrifices a faithless wife, and her perfidious seducer? or {79} at a young girl whom love only has led astray? Even our laws, our pedantic laws, our cold, cruel laws, relent and withdraw their punishment."

"These examples are very different," said Albert; "because a man, under the influence of violent passion, is incapable of reflection, and is looked upon as drunk, or out of his senses." "Oh! you people of sound understandings," I replied, smiling, "are very ready to pronounce sentence, and talk of extravagance, and madness, and intoxication; you are quiet, and care for nothing; you avoid the drunken man, and detest the extravagant; you pass on the other side like the Priest, and like the Pharisee you thank God that you are not like one of them. I have more than once experienced the effects of drinking; my passions have always bordered upon extravagance, and I am not ashamed to own it. Do I not find that those superior men, who have done any great or extraordinary {80} action, have in all times been treated as if they were intoxicated or mad?

"And in private life too, is it not insufferable, that if a young man does any thing uncommonly noble or generous, the world immediately says he is out of his senses? Take shame to yourselves, ye people of discretion; take shame to yourselves, ye sages of the earth." -- "This now is one of your extravagant flights," said Albert; "you always go beyond the mark: and here you are most undoubtedly wrong, to compare suicide, which is in question, with great actions; for it can only be looked upon as a weakness. It is much easier to die than to bear a life of misery with fortitude."

I was upon the point of breaking off the conversation immediately; for nothing puts me out of all patience, like a common-place opinion, which means nothing, whilst I am talking from my inmost heart. However, I got the better of myself; for having often heard this pitiful argument, {81} I now begin to be used to it. But I answered with some warmth, "You call this a weakness; beware of being carried away by sounds! Suppose a people groaning under the yoke of tyranny; do you call them weak, when at length they throw it off and break their chains? The man who, to rescue his house from the flames, exerts all his powers, lifts burthens with ease that he could scarcely move when his mind was at peace; he who attacks and puts to flight half a score of his enemies; are these weak people? My good friend, if resistance is a mark of strength, can the highest degree of resistance be called a weakness?["] Albert looked stedfastly at me, and said, "Begging your pardon, I don't think the examples you have brought have any relation to the subject in question." "That may very likely be," I answered, "for I have been often told, that my way of combining things appeared extravagant. But let us try to set the matter in another light; let us examine {82} what is the situation of a man who resolves to free himself from the burthen of life -- a burthen that is in general so much desired -- and let us enter into his feelings, for we cannot otherwise reason fairly on the subject.

"Human nature," I continued, "has certain limits; there is a degree of joy, grief, pain, which it is able to endure, and beyond that degree it is annihilated.

"We are not, therefore, to enquire whether a man is weak or strong, but whether he can pass the bounds of nature, and the measure of his sufferings, either of mind or body; and I think it is as absurd to say that a man who destroys himself is a coward, as to call a man a coward who dies of a malignant fever." "Paradox, all paradox!" exclaimed Albert. "Not so paradoxical as you imagine," I replied; "you will allow that we call a disease mortal, in which nature is so severely attacked, and her strength so far ex- {83} hausted, that what remains is not sufficient to raise her up, and set her going again.

"Let us apply this to the mind; let us see how ideas work, and how impressions fix upon it, till at length a violent passion takes entire possession, destroys all the powers it possessed when at ease, and entirely subdues it.

"It is in vain that a man of sound understanding and cool temper sees the miserable situation of a wretch in such circumstances; it is in vain that he counsels him: 'tis like the man in health, who sits by the bed of his dying friend, but is unable to communicate to him the smallest portion of his strength."

Albert thought this too general. I quoted the girl who lately drowned herself, and made him recollect her story -- "A good young creature, so accustomed to the narrow sphere of domestic labour, and the business of the week, that she knew of no pleasure but taking a walk in the fields on a Sunday, dancing once per- {84} haps in the holidays, and the rest of her time only talking with her next neighbour of the news and little quarrels of the village. At length her heart feels new and unknown wishes; all that used to please her, now by degrees becomes tasteless, till she meets with a man to whom a new affection invisibly attaches her; from that time, her hopes are all centered in him; the whole surrounding world is forgotten by her; she sees, hears, desires nothing but him; he alone occupies all her thoughts. Her heart having never felt the baneful pleasure arising from light vanity, her wishes tend immediately to the object of them; she hopes to belong to him, and in eternal bonds expects to enjoy all the desires of her heart, and to realize the ideas of happiness which she has formed. His repeated promises confirm her hopes; his fondness encreases her passion; her whole soul is lost and drowned in pleasure; her heart is all rapture: At length she stretches out her arms to embrace the {85} object of her vows -- All is vanished away; her lover forsakes her. -- Amazed! petrified! she stands senseless before the abyss of misery she sees encompass her; all around is darkness; for her there is no prospect, nor hope, nor consolation: she is forsaken by him in whom her life was bound up; and in the wide universe which is before her, among so many who might repair her loss, she feels alone, and abandoned by the whole world. Thus blinded, thus impelled, by the piercing grief which wrings her heart, she plunges into the deep to put an end to her torments. Such, Albert, is the history of many men: And is it not a parallel case with illness? nature has no way to escape: her powers exhausted, and contending powers to struggle with, death must be the consequence. Woe unto the man who could hear this situation described, and who could say, "A foolish girl! why did not she wait till time had worn off the impression? her despair would have {86} been softened, and she would have found another lover to comfort her." One might as well say, "A fool! he died of a fever: why did not he wait till he had recovered his strength, till his blood was calm? then all would have been well, and he would have been alive now."

Albert, who did not allow the comparison to be just, made many objections: amongst the rest, that I had only brought the example of a simple and ignorant girl; -- but he could not comprehend how a man of sense, whose views are more enlarged, and who sees such various consolations, should ever suffer himself to fall into such a state of despair. "My good friend," said I, "whatever is the education of a man, whatever is his understanding, still he is a man, and the little reason that he possesses, either does not act at all, or acts very feebly, when the passions are let loose, or rather when the boundaries of human nature close in upon him.-- But we will talk of this another time," I {87} said, and took up my hat -- Alas! my heart was full -- and we parted without conviction on either side. -- How rarely do men understand one another!